Book Review: Border Patrol Nation by Todd Miller

Review by Molly Todd.

Todd Miller’s book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights Publishers, 2014) explores thought-provoking themes primarily related to U.S. control of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  He asks the reader to relate these themes into a broader understanding of a security complex across the globe. Miller is an independent journalist and writer based in Tuscon, Arizona who has been investigating migration, borders, and homeland security for the past fifteen years.  He has published multiple articles and books regarding the U.S.-Mexico border, and can be considered an expert on the subject.

17675367In Border Patrol Nation, he details a critical concept that I had not come across until I read his book: the Border Security Industrial Complex.  The term is meant to convey the close and reciprocal relationship between U.S. governmental border security and private industry.  In this review, I unpack  Miller’s depiction of this Complex and its underpinnings, and relate it to not only the larger economic and political meanings of security, but to its social meanings under the Trump administration as well.

In his 1961 farewell speech, president Eisenhower warned against the increasing cost of militarization when referencing the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (23).  Today we know that policymakers have not heeded the advice of Eisenhower, but conversely continued to increase budget allocations for military expenditures.  These government expenditures in conjunction with private contracts have morphed into the Military Industrial Complex.  This larger framework is important to understand as I would argue that what Miller denotes as the Border Security Industrial Complex is a subsect of the larger more all encompassing complex that Eisenhower cautioned against.  Miller tells us “the lines of separation between private industry and the U.S. government are increasingly blurred” (55).  The danger of this absorption of government into private industry, and vice-versa, has been noted among many scholars and politicians alike, including Noam Chomsky in his book Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (Seven Stories Press, 1998).  Our current President Trump represents a tipping point of this absorption, as our domestic and international policies and actions  are seen through a lens of capitalist greed more overtly than ever.

In the United States today the current political climate envisions a border security which requires a high-level of technological advancement, weaponry, and manpower — thus demanding a significant monetary and structural investment.  In fact, border control and immigration reform take up a bigger piece of the budget than all other sectors of law enforcement combined (27).  The government finds private companies to fulfill the need for these products, as well as educational institutions to fulfill the need for obedient laborers, satiating the requirements for a whole ecosystem — the Border Security Industrial Complex — to be born.  Miller notes that the University of Arizona “has become a laboratory for the Department of Homeland Security” (47).  He also tells the reader about the Explorer program in El Paso, Texas, which encourages youth ages 14 to 21 to consider becoming border patrol agents.  The program teaches the children about the possibilities for prosperity, how cool it is to be an agent, and how important they will be.  Many of the kids within the program have grown up in communities of lower socioeconomic status, making the program exciting, while not realizing that the end goal is to turn them against the people in their own communities (57-65).

Our current era represents one of an extreme push for border security as a political priority. The events of 9/11 were undoubtedly the impetus that propelled the creation of an entire new sector of government which has affected the lives the American people, as well as citizens across the globe, in ways they couldn’t imagine. At the center of this new sector is the Department of Homeland Security.  Miller tells us that “the U.S. government spent $90 billion on border security during the first ten years following 9/11 alone” ( 26).

To understand this expenditure, we must analyse the social implications that an event like 9/11 has had on the United States.  Secondly, within the scope of these implications we can begin to see the danger when economic incentives take precedence over human lives.  The increased securitization after 9/11 is seen and felt in our everyday lives, whether or not the evidence is directly in front of us.  The passing of the Patriot Act is a strong example; our wires could be tapped and our houses searched without our consent, or even without our knowledge. Changes that seem subtle are promoted under the guise of keeping Americans safe, while gently stripping us of our civil rights and liberties.  America is fighting “the war on terror”, being careful to leave the definition as to who is a terrorist broad, allowing egregious acts of discrimination to be labeled as defending national security.  This is especially true for those who are part of marginalized communities, such as immigrants and people of color, who suffer the brunt of unjust laws like the Patriot act.  State-level legislation in Arizona allowed for people to be racially profiled; ICE agents were given the go ahead to stop and search people who “look illegal”.  This is racism in the name of national security.  

The U.S. government has successfully woven these racist policies and propaganda narratives into our national culture, backed by a whitewashed story telling of our nation’s history.  This has become unquestionably clear, especially under the extreme rhetoric of Trump. A large percentage  of our citizens believe it is worth losing freedom in order to attain “security” and to be “protected.”  But if we aren’t protecting our liberties, then what are we protecting? Miller argues that perhaps what we are really protecting is white privilege, under the misguided ideal of nationalism.  Nationalism thrives on fear of the other, and encourages the acceptance of increased securitization to subdue those fears.

The implications of this in everyday life are scary to say the least.  There has been talk of future security measures requiring the injection of an RFID chip into every citizen of the United States.  Although this hasn’t happened yet nationwide, at least one U.S. company — Three Square Market — has offered the chip to its employees on a voluntary basis . Facial and retina recognition software are already becoming the norm — they are installed in cell phones, allowing the user more “secure access.”  It’s not unlikely that this software, on products made and sold by private companies, are a way for the government to start collecting a database of information, so that they may track our every move in the future.  The border security industrial complex today profits off of exactly that — the tracking of humans.  As this becomes more and more commonplace, again I posit the question: is it citizens who are becoming more secure?  Or is it those who are in power who become more secure of their position?  This is a terrifying notion — one that needs to be closely monitored, before there is no freedom to watch and to question, but instead only space to be watched.

Todd Miller is undoubtedly successful in awakening the reader to the nightmare of the Border Security Industrial Complex.  His work is very accessible and readable, while still providing the depth and detail required for a more nuanced understanding of the issues.  It is clear that his argument is well-researched and backed by years of original research and investigation.  His book may paint a bleak picture of our future, but it also shows how within today’s social, economic, and political climate there is room for work to be done.  For people who are passionate about the rights of marginalized communities, we can work to mobilize by pursuing crosscultural allyship to help give voice to those who stories have been silenced, we take part in a shift away from discriminatory discourse and policy that is instilled in our institutions, like the Border Security Industrial Complex.

Molly Todd is an MA Candidate in International Studies at The University of Colorado Denver. Within her studies she is doing her thesis work regarding the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.  She also works for the University as a TA in the Spanish department and as a Study Abroad Adviser. Before starting her MA program, Molly traveled extensively and spent 3 years living in Spain, following her passion for language and culture. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s